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An Interview with David Webb Peoples

Photo courtesy of David Peoples

David Webb Peoples is an Academy Award nominated screenwriter known for Blade Runner, Unforgiven and 12 Monkeys. I spoke with David about his editing background, his screenwriting process, Blade Runner, writing Unforgiven, collaborating with Clint Eastwood and co-writing 12 Monkeys with his partner Janet Peoples.

You began your career as an editor. When did you first get involved with screenwriting?


David Peoples: My wife and I both loved movies back in the late 50s and early 60s. It was a time when if you were an English major in college you would be trying to write the great American novel. I became more and more fascinated with movies and at the time I lived in Berkeley, California. There were three film schools in the United States, NYU, UCLA and USC. When I graduated from college, I applied to UCLA film school, but they said I had to go back and take some other courses. I was so sick of school so I didn’t, but I wanted to get into the film business somehow, so I volunteered at a TV station. I got a bit of experience as an assistant cameraman and was taught some rudimentary editing. The people where I was volunteering were very kind and a paying job came up for cutting a news film at a San Francisco station. I got a job there and I started cutting news films, which was the closest to the film business that I could be. I cut some documentaries there and then I made a film of my own, editing it and directing it.

David working as an editor. Photo courtesy of David Peoples

Eventually, I did a magazine article and I went down to LA to interview Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas before they were household names. I also interviewed a bunch of other directors such as Sidney Furie and so on. People kept talking about scripts down there. I’d developed a healthy distaste for the written word. I thought only of images and I wasn’t interested in scripts or anything. I was cutting a very low budget car crash movie, which a friend of mine who I admire very much had written and directed. It was his first time writing and directing and I was so impressed that he had the courage to go out there and direct with no experience or anything. I admired him, but I felt that I could have written the script better. That encouraged me to write a script so I could be a movie director, but by the time I finished writing the script, I liked the result and I liked writing the script. So, I started writing scripts one after the other and then I ultimately got hired. I think that’s sort of the way I got from editing films to writing films.



Did you read other screenplays as a reference or guideline for writing scripts?


David Peoples: In those days, for someone outside the motion picture industry, it was almost impossible to see a movie script. I did somehow luck into a copy of William Goldman’s Mr. Horn, which at the time hadn’t been made. It was later made for television, but what a script! I wasn’t crazy about the story, but the writing was wonderful. It made me see the movie right there on the page and it gave me huge encouragement. It made me think I can do this and make people see the movie I’m trying to show them, on the page the way William Goldman does. I tried very much to emulate his work and to work that way.



Are there any screenwriting theories you follow?


David Peoples: I read one wonderful book in the 60s that really helped me called Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriters by William Froug. It’s interviews with screenwriters and it shocked me and helped me tremendously because the screenwriters all said that they felt like phonies because their work didn’t seem any good to them. I suddenly realised that it doesn’t have to work like Dostoyevsky when you write it, it’s just something you struggle with and everybody else struggles with it and you are going to get some of it right if you really keep trying. It made me understand what screenwriters do. It wasn’t a technical book or anything, it was just screenwriters talking about their experiences and their peers and scripts. It was very opening to me. I’m reading some old interviews now, more for amusement than for education and I found interviews tremendously helpful and they taught me how things really worked. I did later look at one famous book, but I can’t remember the title. I didn’t think much of the other stuff, but it was quite clear on structure and I liked it and it was helpful, but it was after the fact. In other words, I discovered three acts just by working instinctively, the way a musician discovers rhythm or tempo or something. I discovered it without learning from a book. Subsequently, I looked at the book on structure and after having worked on scripts, I became aware of what I was doing even though I hadn’t been before that. The business became so competitive that neither Janet Peoples, my co-writer or I could have succeeded in the modern world, but we succeeded back then and there was less competition. It is very much different now. There wasn’t the awareness of everything and the consciousness and also what they want from a writer has changed considerably. It’s not the same now. There are fundamental things that stay the same, but in many ways it’s very different now.



What’s your process when it comes to structuring a script? Do you outline?


David Peoples: You might do a little free flow to get a feeling, but you want an outline. Basically, you can’t do anything without an outline. There is no way to know how to write screenplays. When you write one and it is pretty good, you say I know how to write a screenplay, but the next one is just as difficult and you have to figure it out all over again in many different ways. Figuring out a story is always hard. You do have to come up with an outline that gives you the outlines of a story. That isn’t to say you need lots of detail, but you have to know where you are going at all times. I liken it to a roadmap. If you decide you are starting out at San Francisco, you sort of want to know if you are going through Chicago, or through New Orleans and whether you’ll end up in New York or Miami. You have to make those fundamental senses of what your story is. You don’t want too much because you want the people who are driving the cars to have something to say about it. At least with the kind of scripts we write, they are mainly character driven, so you want the characters to be running a lot of the show, not the whole shape of it, but the decisions along the way, you hope the characters will make them for you.



How did you first get involved with Blade Runner?


David Peoples: I had written a number of scripts on spec without having any success and no real entrée to Hollywood. I did a little bit of editing work for George Lucas, who wanted to check me out as a Bay Area editor, but he didn’t care too much for my work. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him I’d also written scripts. This was just after he directed Star Wars. I kept writing these scripts and trying to network with the people I knew in LA. Fortunately somebody I had worked with before had got a foot in the door in LA. They took some of my scripts around. Tony Scott got involved and I did a rewrite, which was my first professional screenwriting job where I got paid by a company. So, I worked for Tony Scott on an original I’d written called My Dog’s on Fire. Tony was a wonderful guy to work with.


At the same time we were doing this Tony’s brother Ridley was directing this big picture I’d heard about, but didn’t know anything about. The picture was called Blade Runner. Tony introduced me to Ridley at a screening. I left LA after I finished the job with Tony and as soon as I moved back to Berkeley, I got a call from Ridley Scott wanting to talk to me about working on his picture, Blade Runner. I went nuts because that was a promotion for a guy with no screen credits and to work on huge budget picture that was in production. They wanted a production re-write. They flew me down to LA and put me up in a beautiful suite in Chateau Marmont and sent a script over. Two hours later Ridley and Michael Deeley showed up. I could only assume the reason I was there was because Tony said to his brother: “look at this dystopian script he’s written before.” Ridley had the balls to bring on a guy with no track record on this big picture.


Ridley and Michael came to the hotel and asked me what I thought of the script and I was broken hearted because I thought it was great and there was nothing I could think of for me to make it any better. So, here I am basically saying there is no point in hiring me. I thought writers were the important idea people, but I came on to execute Ridley’s ideas and I was allowed to introduce a bunch of my own ideas too. I was endlessly admiring Hampton Fancher’s work and trying to emulate it as much as I could as he had done a great job. I think the most important scene in Blade Runner and the one that makes it work, is the droid cop scene in the beginning when the man is questioned about his feelings and about turning over a turtle and stuff. I never touched that scene. It’s a masterpiece and it is what makes the movie work.

Blade Runner (1982) Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

At the time, I was fully aware of what a break this was, but I had no idea of how magic it was. In fact, there’s a wonderful thing in one of William Goldman’s writings about the business. After writing Butch Cassidy, the producer said to him you jumped over a whole bunch of guys and that’s what happened to me. Suddenly, I wasn’t a struggling writer with no credits, I was working on a production rewrite on a huge picture. I did some good work on the picture and it was huge break for me because after that I was never out of work until I wanted to be out of work.



Is the rewriting process more challenging compared to creating your own original script?


David Peoples: It’s interesting. The rewriting process is very lucrative. You are not sitting there writing your own script on spec that may never see the light of day. It’s lucrative, but it’s not as creatively exciting. When you are working on your own material as original guys like William Goldman did and so on, it is yours. You are as free as J.K. Rowling when she invents a world and a place and characters. The original screenwriters in those days were creating something as new as a novel. We set the place. Later, as soon as you take money then you are for hire. The creative excitement of writing an original is incomparable, on the other hand the financial situation of rewrites I made a lot of friends and a lot of money, so I had to do that too.



Could you discuss how the premise for Unforgiven was developed?

David Peoples: This also was in the period when I was editing films for a living. At the same time, I decided to do this spec script. The first couple of scripts I’d written didn’t have violence or killing in them because as much as I enjoy films like James Bond or Star Wars, the killing in them seems so frivolous and unreal. It’s like a fantasy. It’s supposed to be of course and that’s fine. Then suddenly, along comes Taxi Driver. I had always wanted to make movies that entertained people and I didn’t want to write arty stuff, but I also couldn’t write those fantasy pictures like Star Wars or James Bond. Taxi Driver was a movie that was gritty and had a sense of reality and at the same time entertained the hell out of people. So, I thought that was the way to write movies.


I was also reading a book by Glendon Swarthout called The Shootist at that time. It’s very important to know that Glendon’s novel was a very dark story. His son wrote the screenplay and it was a nice movie, but it lacked all the guts, harshness and darkness that the novel had. That book influenced me a lot. I’d never seen a movie where the hero who is a gunfighter is afraid to die. So, I thought that was the key to this and that’s something I got a little bit from The Shootist. Unforgiven pretty much ended up on the screen exactly as I had written it in 1976. That was a long time before it was bought or made.


After Unforgiven was made and received a lot of favorable attention, one of the studios was releasing three westerns in a package. They wanted me to do a voice over commentary as the guy who was nominated for an Academy Award for Unforgiven. One of them had the standard Western hero, one was a Gary Cooper western and the third one was called The Gunfighter. I had seen that when I was maybe 11 years old and I loved it. It was powerful. I had no idea how much it had stuck with me, but I knew it was a movie I wanted to see again. I said I’d do a commentary if they got me a DVD, so they sent me it and I got to see it for the first time since I was 11 years old and I was astonished at how much it had influenced Unforgiven. I had no idea as I wrote it, how much The Gunfighter played a major part in my writing of Unforgiven, but I didn’t know it at the time. That was a revelation to me.

Unforgiven (1992). Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


It's very difficult to distinguish the good from the evil depicted in Unforgiven.


David Peoples: That has always been my problem. I have a really bad time making somebody an antagonist because I see them so much the same. I see the good guy almost as bad as the bad guy and the bad guy’s only a little worse. I’ve always admired the shark in Jaws because he’s the perfect villain. You can’t fault him for being corny, or cartoony, he’s just hungry. I always wanted a villain that simple, but I don’t write villains that well. My sympathies were with William Munny in Unforgiven, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have sympathy for Little Bill, who was essentially a cop. Then when Clint cast Morgan Freeman as Ned, I hadn’t imagined him as a black man and the idea of having Morgan Freeman was thrilling. It did make Little Bill a lot less sympathetic than I had originally seen him. The bottom line is when I write stuff, I tend to be as sympathetic to the bad guy as I am to the good guy which can be a problem.



Did you have a close collaboration with Clint Eastwood?

David Peoples: No, so Francis Ford Coppola optioned the script in 1984 and I did work a day or two with Franics on rewrites which were very helpful because I did move the introduction of William Munny up a couple of pages. He arrived too late in the script as I’d originally written it. I did those changes for Francis and took out one of my favorite speeches. Francis couldn’t get the movie off the ground. It was then that Clint Eastwood purchased it. That was in ’85 I think. We talked on the phone and he suggested some changes and I made them, but he then decided it was better as originally written.



In 12 Monkeys, James Cole is another anti-hero with a troubled past. Does an anti-hero protagonist make for a more interesting character development?

David Peoples: Janet and I wrote 12 Monkeys together, so she is responsible for that too. I think she, like me, we were both victims of, or admirers of Dostoyevsky who wrote about great sinners and their struggle to rise above that. Dostoevsky hooked me as a young man. I read his work very much in the 50s and early 60s, so he had an immense influence on me because I don’t know where all that other darkness would come from. I certainly haven’t lived that kind of life.

12 Monkeys (1995). Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures


Could you discuss your collaborative process with Janet?


David Peoples: Janet and I first collaborated on a film very early on when I was still a film editor. Jon Else, who was a giant in documentary filmmaking asked me to edit and write with him on a picture about Robert Oppenheimer. At that point Janet said she was going to write a book about Oppenheimer and she knew more than I did about him, so Jon said why doesn’t she write with us. I went on editing the film. Jan, Jon and I worked on the writing. All three of us admired tremendously, Donald Britain at the Canadian film board who made a wonderful film called Volcano about the life of Malcolm Lowry who wrote Under the Volcano. It’s a beautiful film about him with no narration and just one interview after another. We all agreed that that’s what we wanted to do – make a documentary with no narration. So, Janet and I set out all the books and forming the narrative. We wrote a fictional documentary with them saying things we wanted them to say. Jon got many wonderful interviews, but we couldn’t get the interviews to tell the whole story and we needed the narration. So, we worked on that. Day After Trinity was a great experience.


Then Jan went on writing a lot of documentaries, while I did fiction scripts. Then she started doing fiction scripts as well, but we were always working separately. I had a clear voice so that when picking up a script without looking at my name, people would think that’s a Dave Peoples script, just as you pick up a script by William Goldman. You know who wrote it. The same was true of Janet’s scripts. We were always out of sync, but in the 90s we worked on 12 Monkeys together and fortunately producer Chuck Roven was amenable to that. Then we wrote a number of scripts that were not produced but were better than what either of us had written before. There was a third voice. It wasn’t a Dave Peoples script, or a Janet Peoples script, it was a new collaboration that produced a very different voice. 12 Monkeys was our first, but we wrote some of our best stuff, especially an adaptation of James Dickey’s To the White Sea, which is the best thing we ever wrote. In that period, we also wrote a bunch of other scripts together, but were not fortunate in getting them made. The best ones were the ones we wrote together.


David with Gregor Jordan behind the scenes of David's directorial feature debut The Blood of Heroes (1989). Photo courtesy of David Peoples


Do you enjoy seeing your work on screen?

David Peoples: It can be strange. It’s so personal. It takes years to see the movie you even wrote. I remember when Clint Eastwood asked me to look at a cut of Unforgiven. It was the first time I’d ever met him and he’d already shot the film. He had asked me to do a couple of rewrites over the phone and I sent him a couple of pages, but he discarded them because he said they were better the first time. He took me to see a cut before the soundtrack was mixed or anything. I watched it in the screening room and I was moved to tears because it was exactly what I had written. At the same time, I couldn’t follow the story and I thought nobody is going to follow the story. How terrible for Clint Eastwood that he made my script exactly as I had written it, but nobody is going to like it. I was so emotional that I couldn’t understand the story as an audience. He did exactly what I wrote and then came the wonderful time when people went to watch it and liked it and that was refreshing. I’ve tuned into it a couple of times since on TV and I found it very gripping and enjoyed it.


All of the work scares us. Jan and I wrote the original adaptation of Vengeance and that later became Stephen Spielberg’s Munich. We have never watched the movie. We read the subsequent scripts that were written and we were disappointed in them. We felt they had taken our story exactly as we’d adapted it from the book. We thought we should have had a credit on it, but at the same time we were relieved not to have a credit on it because we didn’t want to be responsible for some of what we read in the subsequent drafts, which didn’t sound like the kind of world that we had created. We haven’t seen the movie, so we can’t say one way or the other. There was also another movie that I didn’t look at until very recently called Soldier. It’s one that was always painful because I knew of a big change that had been made that was that the little 18-month-old toddler was going to be a 7 year old actor. My original vision had been of the kid getting into the tiger cage at the zoo and everybody staring in horror, as the big cat wanders around and this little 18-month-old toddler grinning. I wanted that to be Soldier and it couldn’t be. The director did a brilliant job with the picture, but I’m still frustrated as I thought it would be a big hit. Who’s ever seen an 18-month-old kid dominate the screen in a sci-fi movie? I wanted to break loose like The Terminator, which is a masterpiece and actually what inspired me to write Soldier.



What are some of your favorite films?


David Peoples: How can you say Citizen Kane is better than Casablanca? They are just different and comparing them is silly. I do remember, I was outraged when I knew how I wanted to vote in the Academy. I saw About Schmidt and I thought it was wonderful. I thought it was deserving of Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor. I thought it was clearly above the rest of the films, but when it came time to vote Best Picture, it wasn’t even nominated. Jack Nicholson was nominated as Best Actor, as he should have been. But it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture and I was infuriated so didn’t vote for many years, along with Spike Lee not getting nominated one year, I thought was the biggest outrage I’d seen from fellow Academy members. I don’t say everyone had to agree with me, but the fact it wasn’t nominated was too much for me.


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